There is a great deal to welcome in this week’s joint report from the Wales Governance Centre and the Electoral Reform Society. Its conclusions – an increase in the membership and a move to a single class of AM with a more proportional electoral system - are both things which I’ve supported for many years. Having said that, I don’t agree with everything that they have to say, particularly when it comes to the proposed number of AMs – or rather, how that number has been arrived at.
When I first read the news reports, it struck me that 87 was such a precise number – most previous discussions have talked about round numbers such as 80 or 100. The reason for arriving at 87 is clear enough; there are 29 Westminster constituencies, and if we allocate three AMs to each, we end up with 87. The mathematics is clear – but how about the logic? What, for instance, is magic about 3 members per constituency, when 4 would produce an even more proportional result? Why do all constituencies have to be the same size and have the same number of AMs? I understand the argument for equality of representation, but part of the beauty of multi-member constituencies is that they can have different numbers of representatives if they have different numbers of constituents.
The problem that I have with this report is that the outcome is driven by the rather axiomatic assumption that coterminosity is a good thing; in this case, that Assembly constituencies should match Westminster constituencies. I’m not convinced about that at all; and the report itself notes that “there is little detailed published research of which we are aware on public attitudes to coterminosity”. I certainly understand why the political parties would prefer consistent boundaries; years of experience of the complications of constituency boundaries not being the same as local authority boundaries means that I am well aware of the difficulties for parties in trying to organise themselves to fight elections across different boundaries. And were I still a party functionary, I’m sure that I’d be arguing for coterminosity.
But does it matter to the public? I’m not aware of any strong evidence of that; indeed, given the recent research on people’s knowledge of the names of their representatives, I’m not sure that it matters much at all. Insofar as there is a potential for confusion, it’s most likely to arise if multiple elections are held on the same day, it seems to me. And in Scotland, there is already a disconnect between the constituency boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood – I’m not aware of any evidence that that has led to the public being seriously confused.
If it doesn’t matter to the public, why don’t we start by thinking about what we would ideally do for Wales if we started with a clean sheet of paper? That will, of course, be a matter of opinion, but given the strong criticism of the new Westminster boundaries for ignoring historic identities and communities, why should we simply follow suit? What’s wrong, for instance, with having a single constituency for Cardiff (or Swansea, or Newport) and adjusting the number of members upwards? What’s the problem, for our new Welsh democracy, with recognising rurality by having greater variation in the size of constituencies than is permitted under the new Westminster rules (after all, many politicians in Wales have already argued for precisely that in relation to those new Westminster rules)? Or more generally, why do we start from the implicit presumption that what happens for Westminster is ‘right’, and everything else has to be built on that foundation?
Now I know that the report’s authors have held discussions with representatives of all the parties before publishing their conclusions. I don’t know what was said in those discussions, of course; but it may well be that the authors concluded that coterminosity was an essential requirement for there to be any chance of cross-party agreement on the changes; that coterminosity is, in other words, a price worth paying in order to get the two greater prizes of an increase in numbers and a change to the voting system. And actually, if that were the basis of their conclusion, I’d agree with them. But that’s a pragmatic argument rather than the one of principle as which it’s being presented.Pragmatism may have to suffice in the short term, but in the longer term, we really need to free ourselves from the assumption that we have to follow what happens for and at Westminster.